There are few names thrown about Hollywood with as much weight as Cecil B. DeMille. In his heyday, it seemed that DeMille could ask for and receive just about anything, including the risque costumes featured in this film, at the eve of the Hays Code’s new enforcement. Still, watching Cleopatra, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about DeMille that commanded such… not respect, but acquiescence; that ability to get everything that he wanted in the making of his films. I wonder this because Cleopatra, as a film, is not very good; what’s more, even the things that DeMille requested, such as the lavish production value, sets, costumes, and extensive use of extras, were not utilized well at all. Seeing the weight behind the name of DeMille, I couldn’t help but be severely let down at the man’s ability, at least in this stage of his career, to actually tell a good story, and tell it well.
Claudette Colbert stars as Cleopatra, in one hell of a banner year for any individual Hollywood star. If you know the name Cleopatra, you know everything there is to this film’s plot; Cleopatra meets Julius Caesar of Rome, they fall in love, Caesar is assassinated, Cleopatra falls for Marc Antony, they fight Octavian for control of Rome, they are defeated, Antony takes his own life, and Cleopatra soon after. The plot isn’t what you would watch this film for, so what is there to actually watch this for? It was a surprising turn of mine to find out that the answer is: not very much. I started it, and the production value was immediately at the highest level, and I was looking forward to being wowed by the film’s visual splendor. Then… uncertainty. The film had only been going for about 20 minutes, but already I couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t working, wasn’t clicking right with the viewing. The characterization, and in particular the actions of the characters, seemed stilted, wanting of actual motivation and desire to see desires through; instead, everything was happening by rote, because it was being told to do so, either by the script or by DeMille’s overhanded direction. It was during the next section of the film, that dealt with the leadup to Caesar’s assassination, that it started to grow unbearable for me; the film knew that Caesar was going to be killed, knew that the audience knew as well, and still decided to be as absolutely heavy-handed with the leadup to it as possible, so much so that every time some innocuous character would come in and say something fearful to Caesar out of nowhere as a portent of his doom, I would audibly groan with displeasure at the perceived insult to my intelligence and attention span. It’s this heavy-handedness that I think is why Cleopatra ultimately fails as a film; it’s so concerned with making sure the audience “gets it”, the “it” being whatever the film is trying to do from moment to moment, that it does more than come across as trying too hard – it bludgeons the audience with a sledgehammer in its frustrating attempt to tell the story it wants to tell.
I’d looked up some other reviews on this one, and found a mixed reception at best, but I still went into it with the slight hope that the film’s lavish production would be enough to sustain me through the film’s running time. In short, it wasn’t; this was just bad, plain and simple. It was hokey, and maudlin, overacted and overdirected, and even the film’s excessive budget turned out to be a mark against it, being so only because it was what DeMille wanted on the screen, and not actually used in the right ways. I’m giving it the most difficult of extra points that I’ve given in a long time just for the sheer production value on display, even though for me even that wasn’t an actual boon to the picture, but with that, I’m completely fine with writing this off as a Best Picture nominee entirely. Sorry, Mr. DeMille, but I expected more from you than this.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10